Thursday, October 06, 2011

“Childhood experiences are like a suitcase that we always carry with us”



I was born in 1970, in Crete, in Voni Pediados, a small village with 500 residents, where nothing ever happens. Until every year on July 17, when something of a miracle happens. The village is flooded with people. It is the day when worshippers come to the Monastery of Saint Marina to pray. I remember it fondly. Afterwards, the visiting people depart and the village returns to its uneventful live, waiting for the next pilgrimage. My name is Sophia Ploumaki. As a child, I was called “the teachers’ daughter.” Both of my parents were teachers, demanding and strict, especially my father. As “the teachers’ daughter” in a close-knit community, I was somewhat of a public figure and I had to be perfect in everything I did. Even today, my philosophy is to try very hard to be perfect. Childhood experiences are like a suitcase that we always carry with us. We are never getting rid of those. I don’t believe in ‘getting rid of’. I believe in maturity and self awareness. 

***

Journeys – as an escapism - always existed in my imagination. This was a strange mixture of curiosity and adventure. When I was little, I “traveled” reading Bleik and Peter Pan.  A little later, came the readings of Loudemis*. His poetry I discovered in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. At age 11 we left the village and moved to the city of Heraklion. I felt free, I was no longer “the teachers’ daughter,” I was lost in anonymity – but this also caused anxiety. At the village school, we were only 40 students, but in Heraklion we were 300. In addition, I felt like the kid who came from the village, different – again. I remember trying to convince myself that it was all just temporary.  For me, the ideal place was always somewhere else. I didn’t know where this place was, just that it existed somewhere…

***

At 19, I went to Athens. I had taken my university entrance exams in Heraklion, but I did not pass.  Rote learning did not interest me. My parents were embarrassed of my ‘failure’. It was believed that whoever didn’t get into university was hopeless and a lost cause. I told my parents that I wanted to go to a private university. They agreed, but only if I chose a private university in Greece. They were afraid to send me abroad. I went to the American College of Greece in Agia Paraskevi (district of North Athens), to study Psychology and I got a scholarship. I also worked while I was a student. In the beginning, I was frightened of Athens. I got over it quickly, however. My own creative experiences led me to enjoy Athens and feel comfortable there.  At the American College I gained an appetite for an academic career. I think it had to do with the American system, which fosters competition and gives you motives to succeed. I studied Psychology primarily I wanted to understand and analyse my own experiences… I wanted to learn more about psychotherapy because it relates directly to people’s experiences. The only way to do this was to leave. In Greece, there were no choices. I think it’s tragic that the Greek public universities exclude those of us who graduated from private universities.

***

I searched for a university abroad and I found a post-graduate degree program in group psychotherapy at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I was leaving Athens after seven years. The first night in London was traumatic. I was given a room in the student dormitory – there was a bed without sheets or a pillow. The room was near the train tracks and every 10 minutes the room would rumble and shake. I felt like my life was starting over from scratch. Everything in London was different and new. Next door there was a student from Mongolia; across the hall, a Japanese girl and a Chinese girl. My multicultural experience began that night. However, the biggest challenge was the English language. I knew the language, but now I had to master the emotional language of psychotherapy. For the first time, I had to exist, to think and communicate my feelings in a language that was not my native tongue. In the beginning, communicating with patients scared me. They spoke English filled with idioms, which I didn’t understand. I tried to understand them by their body language. It took me five years to master that level of the language. Today, I am able to narrate emotional experiences only in English. Whenever I return to Heraklion, for the first few hours, I feel like I can’t speak Greek or English. There is a gap where the languages get tangled up.
***

I’ve been living in London for 14 years. I consider it my city. However, I don’t want to grow old here. When things become familiar, I begin to feel weighed down. I often feel like I want to go somewhere else – to an English-speaking country where I possess that unique language of emotions. Recently, I’ve been thinking about it intently, because I observe an unbearable change in the way that the British people consider us the non – British. The UK is gradually but steadily becoming narrow-minded and oppressive. I deal with xenophobia even in my job – the way I am treated by clients and co-workers sometimes, because I am not a “pure-blood” British person. I think the British never got over the fact that the British Empire no longer exists. On the other hand, they are living with a shrinking social welfare system and a great fear that the foreigners will deprive the locals of resources. How can I describe a racist or a xenophobe in psychological terms? It mostly has to do with fear and envying the Other for the love of the Parent. A racist and a xenophobe enjoys life and love by completely excluding others. A racist often resorts to behaviors reminiscent of a child demanding his parents to love only him and no one else. He suffers from a deep insecurity and is constantly afraid that the others, the “foreigners,” will steal that which he believes belongs only to him. The idea that he has to share is unbearable to him. Personally, I have come across this reaction specifically from individuals who have suffered very serious psychological traumas and depravations…

***

I came to Greece this year in May. I observed that the people are overwhelmed or overtaken by a strong feeling of worthlessness. It’s not about a chaotic situation – chaos, when you manage to keep a sense of boundaries, is something creative. In psychological terms, I would say that I perceived a sense of collective clinical depression; the main attribute being that one either sees the situation as black or white. In a situation of clinical depression, a sense of collective responsibility does not exist. You simply try to make the others responsible for something that has happened to you. This attitude reminds me of the slogans “I didn’t do it” and “I didn’t steal [the money]” which I read in Syntagma Square (in the center of Athens). In terms of childhood experiences, such reactions are usually common in people who have had a traumatic relationship or experiences with their parents. Parents who are overprotective or absent (physically or emotionally), create the same symptoms: the child’s inability to face reality, to solve their problems creatively and to communicate with others… What has my journey taught me? I think my journey has not yet ended. I always have my suitcase ready… for somewhere else…

*Famous Greek poet

(Translated and edited by Gigi Papoulias)

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